It’s a maxim repeated all over the internet, and it keeps popping up in debates between Christians and atheists. But what exactly is the phrase telling us? Do extraordinary claims really need extraordinary evidence? And what exactly qualifies as “extraordinary” evidence anyway?
Is it true?
Do extraordinary claims really need extraordinary evidence? Well, intuitively, it seems the answer yes. But is it really true?
Suppose I were to claim that I were not a human, and instead am a giant pink salamander. What kind of evidence would be required in order to back this claim? Well I could obviously submit pictures of myself typing these blog posts as evidence. I could submit videos. I could allow people to come observe me. None of these would really be “extraordinary” types of evidence. Merely observing something is nothing extraordinary. But these could certainly serve as proof for my claim. People would be justified in believing me upon observation–it’s possible that they could be within their epistemic rights simply by seeing pictures of me typing (though with Photoshop and the like, it is more difficult to justify that epistemically).
So despite our intuitions, it seems there must be some kind of argument to establish the truth of the phrase. It seems, upon further thought, that the phrase is false. Ordinary evidence (x observes y to be the case, therefore, x believes y is true) will do even for extraordinary claims. Examples of this nature could be multiplied. So it seems the phrase, on this interpretation, is simply false.
What qualifies as an ‘extraordinary’ claim?
Another problem with the statement “Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence” is that those who make the claim never explain what exactly it is that qualifies as an “extraordinary claim.” I mean surely, we could reduce almost any claim to something extraordinary, if we worked hard enough. I claim to be human; that entails a huge amount of ontology such as the existence of a planet which is capable of supporting life, the existence of life on said planet, the higher order of life such that intelligent life could exist, intelligent life which created machines capable of typing out thoughts, etc, etc. Any claim could be said to be “extraordinary”. The attack on “extraordinary claims” fails, in part, because it does not define what qualifies as “extraordinary”. I suspect this is another case of proving too much or not enough: either all claims are extraordinary and not to be believed until we have overwhelming evidence, or claims need just enough evidence to be justified in believing them.
Without a clear explanation of what qualifies as an “extraordinary claim” (and I think there can be none offered without begging the question), there is no reason to accept the statement as true to begin with. But this leads us to the next level:
What is ‘extraordinary evidence’?
What exactly is “extraordinary evidence” anyway? The phrase is thrown around as though it has meaning, and for someone studying philosophy with a heavy analytic bent, this is maddening. What is meant by “extraordinary”!? I think it could give us one of two options: either a) a large amount of evidence; or b) extremely powerful evidence. But even these definitions are ambiguous: what constitutes a “large amount” of evidence or “extremely powerful” evidence?
The phrase therefore seems to rely upon a certain ambiguity in order to maintain its power. There is no clear definition of what constitutes extraordinary evidence; and it seems likely that the phrase is merely used to try to increase the burden of evidence on the theist. Without a clear definition or any kind of argument to support the assertion, however, the theist is justified in rejecting it.
Is that the issue?
Perhaps I’ve missed what’s really the issue here. I suspect the reasoning is that the phrase is meant to refer either to:
1) Things which can’t be observed in the usual fashion
2) Things of great existential import
Consider 1) first. The reasoning here could be that something, like God, which can’t be observed simply by going somewhere and staring, would need extraordinary evidence in order to justify belief in said being. The problem here is that the definition of extraordinary is being used differently than (I think) the phrase is intended. For here, extraordinary would have to mean simply”other” than the ordinary. There would have to be some kind of evidence for a thing’s existence such that it would act as a substitute for “seeing” the thing. But that doesn’t mean we need “more” or “greater” evidence for something described by 1) than we would for something which is a standard, everyday kind of thing. All it means is that we’d have to have a different kind of evidence.
What kind of evidence, specifically? Well it seems as though logical evidence or philosophical argument could serve as a valid substitute for empirical evidence. So either of those could serve to justify someone in her belief in a deity.
Consider 2)–that claims of great existential import need extraordinary evidence. William Lane Craig discussed this in his Reasonable Faith Podcast, “Doubting the Resurrection.” He asserted that if something is of existential importance, we don’t demand more evidence for it; if anything, we should be more open and eager to explore the viability of the claims. Craig proposed the following example: suppose you are diagnosed with a fatal disease and there was “some experimental evidence that a vaccine… might cure you, wouldn’t you be desperate to [try the medicine and] find out if that might save your life… rather than saying, ‘Well, this is such a life-changing situation that I’m going to be as skeptical as I can, and only take this medicine as a last resort when it’s been demonstrated absolutely that” it will cure the disease.
The key point is that claims of extraordinary existential significance require evidence, but they are of such import that it is almost absurd to be totally skeptical of these claims due to their total importance. As Craig points out, if God exists and sent His Son to save us through belief in Him, that is such an extraordinarily significant difference between the universe if that is true as opposed to if it is false that it is worth exploring. He points out that even if there’s only a 1/1,000,000 chance that it’s true, it is worth looking into.
The most obvious rebuttal to this kind of reasoning is a kind of argument from religious diversity: “All the world’s religions have existential significance, and it would be impossible to fully explore all of them in a lifetime”… therefore, what? Perhaps one could argue that because we can’t explore all the options, we shouldn’t bother with any–but that seems to be throwing out everything for no reason. A diversity of options does not entail the falsehood of all.
It may be best to instead look at world religions in light of the kinds of evidence which could be available, and take 1) above with 2) to yield an exploration of religions based upon the types of evidence available for them. For example, the Qur’an contradicts the Bible on the topic of whether Jesus was crucified. Yet we have irrefutable evidence that Jesus was indeed crucified from both Gospel accounts and extrabiblical, contemporary accounts. Therefore, one could see it fit to exclude Islam from the exploration and move on. Perhaps one finds the existential claims of Buddhism less compelling than that of Judaism–in such a case, she would be well within her epistemic rights to explore Judaism rather than Buddhism.
A complete answer to this objection would take us far afield, but for now I think that it may be best to note simply that the objection does not undermine the argument against 2) anyway. As noted, a mere diversity of positions does not entail they are all false. Similarly, our inability to explore all possible options does not mean we should explore none. Perhaps it means, instead, that we should get started.
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